At a time when many public school students have little more than tattered textbooks and old supplies to aid math and science learning, campuses throughout Los Angeles County received a double dose of good news this week with the infusion of $20-million worth of teacher training grants and funds to buy equipment.
The Los Angeles Unified School District has been handed a $10-million federal grant, funds that for one high school will mean about $38,000 worth of equipment such as laser disc encyclopedias and 3-D computer software.
It is the first time in four years of unprecedented budget cuts that teachers at all 650 district schools are able to buy big-ticket items on their instructional wish lists.
"This kind of money just hasn't existed in years," said Fred Von Dohlen, instructional leader of math and science at Hamilton High School. "I usually only get about $2,000 and buy a few frogs," he said.
In a departure from its usual practices, the district is giving the money to schools to spend as they choose, an action viewed by many as a small victory in the movement to decentralize decision-making.
"I look at this as an opening up in terms of empowerment of the school site," Von Dohlen said. "The idea of department members sitting down to talk about the needs of students and having resources to meet the needs is a very joyous occasion. That has not happened in the past much."
In another boost for needy classrooms, a private coalition of businesses and educators Wednesday announced the start-up of a $9.9-million program to provide in-depth training for math and science teachers throughout Los Angeles County.
The goal of the program--called SMART, for Science/Math Advancement and Resources for Teachers--is to provide tools for teachers to bring up-to-date technology and instructional methods to students.
Only 6.4% of Los Angeles County high school students are enrolled in advanced mathematics classes, and only 9.8% are enrolled in advanced science, according to statistics from the County Office of Education. In addition, of Latino and African-American students, who together make up 59% of high school students countywide, only 2.7% are enrolled in advanced math and 6.8% in science.
Teachers believe that they are also deficient in advanced math and science training. In the Los Angeles school district, more than 40% of middle-school teachers lack a strong science background in the content area they teach, according to the county research.
Under the SMART program, funded by 14 corporations, teachers can attend advanced workshops taught by scientists, engineers and top educators. As an incentive, they will be able to apply for grants or gifts of computers and software for their schools.
"There has not been a lot of emphasis on teachers," said John McDonald of the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, which is managing the SMART program. "(Many) have inadequate training and little access to resources. We are going to change that."
In Los Angeles Unified, the $10-million grant has created a buying frenzy among math and science teachers, many of whose students have been starved for the most basic supplies during four years of stinging budget cuts. The money is being allocated to each school on a per-pupil basis.
At the request of Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles), Congress appropriated the funding from the defense budget last October, taking the money from the peace dividend reaped from military reductions after the end of the Cold War. The money is being funneled through the California National Guard.
"For us to get $32,000 is like manna from heaven," said Nancy Delgado, assistant principal of Canoga Park High School. Teachers there--who hurriedly attended computer presentations when they found out about the grant--plan to convert an empty classroom into a technology center.
"When the teachers went through all these presentations, I could see the lights go on," Delgado said. "Suddenly there's all this money, and these people are being turned on to teaching again."
For Joyce Dixon, principal of the small, 400-student Cowan Avenue Elementary School in Westchester, the $1,100 grant will purchase what has for years been an elusive dream: a basic science kit with metric scales, geometric figures and a microscope.
"We wanted children to be able to visualize, to see how increments occur," Dixon said.
At John Adams Middle School, south of downtown Los Angeles, science teacher Marc Hays said the $24,000 for portable video equipment, computers and math software will help him with one of his stiffest challenges: making students excited to learn. "It's tough when I'm teaching out of an old dry book," he said.
Stretching for a creative way to bring to life the meaning of Newton's Law, Hays rigged up a toy racetrack in his classroom. But learning about speed, gravity and centrifugal force with matchbox cars has its limitations.
"Mr. Hays tries to find ways to keep us interested, but some new equipment would really help," said student Claudia Vides, 14. "Computers are everywhere now. But we don't have them."